Invisible Hands, Invisible Objectives: Bringing Workplace Law and Public Policy into Focus

By Stephen F. Befort; John W. Budd | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Achieving Equity

EQUITY CONSISTS OF FAIR EMPLOYMENT STANDARDS that all workers are entitled to, including wages and benefits to support a family, decent working conditions, security, and nondiscriminatory treatment. Some might see equity in laissez-faire terms: market-based transactions are fair because they are voluntary. Economists might take this one step further: market-based transactions are fair because competitive markets ensure that everything commands its economic worth. From that perspective, improving equity is a private rather than a public issue— low-paid workers who want higher incomes should work harder and improve their skills. Our pluralist perspective is different. The complexity of the employment relationship undermines the realism of the ideal competitive model; in many cases, market-determined terms and conditions of employment at least partly reflect bargaining power differentials rather than only economic value. Structural barriers, not just a lack of personal responsibility and individual self-improvement, can prevent workers from bettering their economic position. And as labor is more than just an economic commodity, the metrics for employmentrelationship equity must stem from human dignity, not from the marketplace—regardless of how perfectly competitive the market may be. As such, markets and individual initiative cannot be solely relied on to provide equity in the modern employment relationship.

As shown in Chapter 4, the current U.S. employment system—which is heavily focused on markets and individual initiative—fails to provide equity to many employees. Even Adam Smith, who is typically associated with the invisible hand of free markets, recognized that labor

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